Wednesday, February 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Group Urges Feds to Act on Coastal Refuge

SACRAMENTO (CN) - The federal government had 15 years to create a conservation plan for a wildlife refuge neighboring California's only beach with vehicle access but missed its deadline, according to a lawsuit filed last week.

The Friends of Oceano Dunes claims the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has had 15 years to write a comprehensive conservation plan for the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge - and it failed. It sued Fish and Wildlife, the Secretary of the Interior and the refuge on Sept. 17.

The Friends describe themselves as a nonprofit watchdog that seeks to preserve and develop recreational use in the area. They have found themselves at odds with other environmental groups at times, including the Sierra Club.

The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge, in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, includes one of the largest coastal dunes systems in California. It was created in part to protect breeding habitat for the California least tern and the threatened western snowy plover. It provides habitat for other endangered species, including the California tiger salamander and California red-legged frog, and recovering endangered species, including brown pelicans.

Visitors can hike, fish and watch wildlife on the 2,500-acre refuge, which is next to the Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area, where cars and all-terrain vehicles are allowed to drive on the beach and dunes.

Motorists have driven on the beach there for more than a century, and parking vehicles at the water's edge is a popular tourist attraction.

Many environmentalists claim the vehicles threaten wildlife and the environment and spoil the experience for other beachgoers.

The website for Friends of Oceano Dunes features a photo of a boy riding an ATV in the dunes. The group says it wants to keep the park open to families and increase its membership so it will have "a fighting chance to stand up to the Sierra Club as well as other groups that wish to limit access to the park."

Friends of Oceano Dunes members "enjoy the benefits of public access and usage of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area," it says on its website.

Only one of its eight board members is local.

Emails sent to Friends of Oceano Dunes were not answered over the weekend.

Andrew Christie, director of the San Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club, said the Friends want the federal government to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.

"The single purpose of FoOD is to maintain and expand the lands dedicated to off-road vehicle recreation in the ODSVRA, adjacent to the refuge," Christie said in an email. (The Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area.)

"With that in mind, it would appear they want to force the USFWS to raise its success rate in hatching and fledging snowy plovers at the adjacent refuge, thereby relaxing the responsibility of State Parks to maintain high plover hatch and fledging rates in the adjacent ODSVRA, which requires Parks to dedicate significant portions of land to plover nesting areas that would otherwise be dedicated to off-road recreation."

While Christie agrees a plan is needed, he said he does not think there has been an issue with access to the refuge. The refuge was created on Aug. 1, 2000. According to the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, was to prepare and adopt a comprehensive conservation plan for the refuge within 15 years of its establishment.

The Friends of Oceano Dunes claim the act was intended to conserve and manage wildlife and recreational interests. They say they have expertise on how to manage conflicts between wildlife conservation and human recreational activities, and want to participate in creating the plan, as required by the act.

"(T)he legislative history of the Act reveals that Congress expected 'the FWS to be energetic and creative in seeking ... partnerships with the states, local communities and private and nonprofit groups," according to the lawsuit.

As an example of why more input is needed, the groups says, Fish and Wildlife has a poor record managing predators at the refuge, which resulted in the deaths of snowy plovers.

An adequate plan would identify and describe the purpose of the refuge, the distribution, migration patterns and abundance of fish, wildlife and plant populations, archaeological and cultural values and opportunities for compatible wildlife-dependent recreational uses, the group says.

The picturesque dunes have inspired artists such as photographer Ansel Adams, and Cecil B. DeMille, who shot his 1923 film "The Ten Commandments" there.

More recently the dunes have received attention for another visitor. A Bakersfield man with a drone this summer captured video of a shark lurking around surfers near the shore. The video went viral and garnered international attention.

Three weeks later, a great white shark bit into a surfer's board in Morro Bay, about 30 miles north. A shark expert believes the fish may view the area as its territory, and surfboards as competition.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.